Public relations, as a function, has not only been disrupted but also hugely democratised over the last 10 years. Brands no longer have the autonomy to control what is put out about them in the public domain. Internet and mobile penetration as well as technology and social tools have become game changers for this profession, as for many others. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms, brands have become ‘residents of glass houses’, so to speak, and simply don’t know where or how the next bouquet or brickbat is going to come from.
Bloggers, analysts, subject-matter experts, and social media influencers are suddenly as empowered (if not more so) than journalists, with varying levels of influence. It is fair to say that the information noise has never been louder, faster, more interactive or as multi-channel as it is now. For brands, whether they are big businesses or startups, the stakes have become much, much higher.
Startups that are relatively new in the PR game have an additional set of challenges, the biggest of which — of their own making — is the speed at which they want to reach their business goals. As far as PR goes, startups are most certainly doing many things right. There’s got to be good reason why 4,200 of them were clocked in 2015 and helped create 80,000 new jobs, according to NASSCOM. They have also, in recent years, increasingly sought and attracted funding from investors.
It has been said that nine out of 10 startups fail in the first four to six months. Reports of the startup scene moving from euphoria to caution are abound and investors are no longer applying the ‘spray and pray’ model but a more cautious, ‘wait and watch’ approach in deciding their portfolio companies. Unicorns such as Flipkart were recently devalued by as much as 27% in a flash.
Given this dynamic environment, it has become more important for startups to sharpen their game. Having had the opportunity to work with many of them closely over the past few years, I believe that the following are some PR tips that can help startups navigate a way forward.
Let the person with whom the buck stops, speak
It helps to hear critical communication from the person with whom the buck stops and for them to communicate clearly and directly. Zomato, the food services portal, is a case in point. This startup recently got devalued by half and so the founder put out a personal blog explaining and clarifying his point of view on the devaluation, thereby giving an unfiltered version of his story and allaying some of the concerns of internal and external stakeholders.
Recently rechristened personal assistant app, Helpchat, also saw its founder take to his personal blog to explain why a strategic acquisition fell through the cracks. And he doesn’t hesitate to field follow-on questions on this platform. There are platforms such as the blog site, Medium, that empowers entrepreneurs, who feel their point of view hasn’t been heard, to communicate with large audiences.
A caveat for founders: if it is something that impacts employees, remember to communicate it first internally among employees before taking it public.
Let the story determine the spokesperson
It is important for startups to identify different levels of spokespersons. The CEO or founder need not necessarily be the person handling all the media queries. This has many benefits – it showcases other leadership to the public; it shows that the organisation is professional; and, in times of crisis, it takes attention away from any one individual and focuses people on the issue at hand.
As preparation, take time to put your messaging in place thoughtfully. Don’t let it be a last-minute job that left-out pertinent details or got the language wrong. A comprehensive backgrounder describing who you are, the challenges you are solving and how, will go a long way with media or external stakeholders. This exercise helps entrepreneurs put out the ‘right story’ to the external world, which is a key ingredient for communications success.
Don’t start and stop, and then start again PR campaigns
There have been so many startups that think that a few mentions in the media are enough and, of course, a few good mentions do help in building credibility, but that’s only momentary. In the fast-paced news world that we live in, media mentions are soon forgotten and any brand awareness created through them won’t stick unless they are continuous. The news cycle is fast churning, and it takes time and repeated mentions to become memorable in the minds of your customers and other stakeholders. Identify opportunities for yourselves to get media mentions for product development, funding, leadership and expansion, and keep pitching stories, writing articles and getting them published, and definitely don’t stop trying.
At the end of the day, working with communication experts who not only have an established network but also know what it takes to build public awareness for brands and create opportunities for impactful messaging, will give startups a much needed boost. For many startups, their priority is to build world-class products and services and a well-functioning company, and therefore having communication experts to handle your PR will allow you to focus on your core activities while also having a timely platform for meaningful and impactful PR delivery.